June 16 2010 12:00 AM

The Pixar Generation


Back in April, I received an invitation to a screening of “Toy Story 3” via Facebook. How exciting, I thought: Pixar Animation Studios is actually going to show the movie two months ahead of its release. So I set about trying to RSVP — only to find I had been invited by accident.

It turned out the screening was not intended for members of the media; it was strictly for college students. And they weren’t going to be seeing the completed film, either. This screening program involved showings of what Pixar called “the cliffhanger edition” of the film. The students saw the first 65 minutes of the film, which ended with a message from the producers: “Make sure to check out the full 3-D experience of ‘Toy Story 3’ when it hits theaters nationwide. The toys are depending on you.”

In most cases, if you’re invited to a “sneak preview,” you’ll be seeing the full movie — or at least a reasonably complete “work print” of the picture — and, sometimes, you’ll be asked for comments afterward. But in the case of “3,” the Pixar team was not looking for helpful feedback to help shape the marketing campaign or to make last-minute tweaks on the film. They were using these “cliffhanger” showings strictly to build word-of-mouth among a perceived target audience.

“Today’s college students were about 3 when the first ‘Toy Story’ was released in 1995,” noted New York Times writer Brooke Barnes in an April 30 story, “and about 7 when the sequel arrived. ‘Toy Story 3’ also has a natural tie-in, since it revolves around Andy’s departure for college and what that means for the oddball inhabitants of his toy box.”

The marketing people at Pixar are shrewd enough to realize they now have their own Pixar Generation to tap into, legions of young people who can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a new Pixar film in theaters or on the way. “Toy Story” was the first Pixar feature and, in the 15 years since it debuted, the company has rolled out a series of instant classics: “Monsters, Inc.”; “Finding Nemo”; “The Incredibles”; “Ratatouille”; “WALL*E”; “Up.”

Some fans wouldn’t place “A Bug’s Life” and “Cars” in the same league with the aforementioned titles, but even those films were major successes that have sustained their popularity years after they first hit the market (it’s somewhat stunning to see how much “Cars”-related merchandise is still available four years after its theatrical run).

The first “Toy Story” opened shortly after Disney had finally managed to remove the kiddie-matinee stigma from animated films by encouraging grown-ups to line up for “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” “Pocahontas,” the lush animated romance Disney released only a few months before “Toy Story” opened, actually seemed to play better to adult audiences than it did to kids.

Director John Lasseter capitalized on this in “Toy Story” by roping in Tom Hanks and Tim Allen to do the voicework and by ensuring the movie included enough slapstick for the little ones while incorporating slightly more sophisticated jokes for adult viewers. Many twentysomethings who watch “Toy Story” and its superb sequel “Toy Story 2” (acclaimed by one of my friends as “the ‘Godfather II’ of animated movies”) probably appreciate the films in an entirely different way than they did when they were kids.

What’s genuinely remarkable about all this is that college-aged people will happily sit down to watch the “Toy Story” trilogy without any sense of embarrassment. Many of them still love these movies, and rightfully so.

In addition, I would bet a large percentage of those “cliffhanger” viewers will be buying tickets to see the conclusion of “Toy Story 3.” After all, the toys are depending on them, Pixar is banking on them, and you don’t let old friends down.

For reviews see Cole Smithey’s Movie Week at www.lansingcitypulse.com/movies